Morgan Park Academy—first called Mt. Vernon Military and Classical Academy—was founded on a ridge above "Horse Thief Hollow" during Ulysses S. Grant's second term as president, just in time for the "Panic of 1873." It survived that economic dislocation—and a few others in its venerable history—and has endured and flourished as an independent school for well over a century.
It became Morgan Park Military Academy in 1877, with the Civil War still a vivid memory, and while the U.S. military operations were primarily concerned with the resistance of Geronimo and other Native American leaders in the West.
Tuition in the 1870s was $400 and included "board washing (12 pieces a week), [and] mending of under garments." Uniforms added another $64.50 to the bill.
It was, from its inception, a proprietary school with the land and buildings owned by the headmaster, and intended to operate for the profit of the owner.
For a brief period (1890-1892), it was incorporated by the state under the name of the Illinois Military Academy. Operating simultaneously and in near proximity during those years was the Owen Academy, an informal school using buildings of the Baptist Theological Seminary to prepare students for entrance in advance of the opening of the new University of Chicago.
When William Rainey Harper became the founding president of the University of Chicago in 1892, the Academy became the non-sectarian, integrated, and co-ed (quite unusual for that time—although, the experiment did not survive the decade) preparatory school for the university. It was located in suburban Morgan Park, on land purchased in part from the Illinois Military Academy, and was given a new name: Morgan Park Academy of the University of Chicago.
Harper's teachers at the Academy held university rank and one of them, Amos Alonzo Stagg, coached football for a time at both institutions. Two of the Academy's alumni—Jesse Harper , at Notre Dame, and Wallace Wade , at Alabama and Duke—became coaches who were later elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. The Academy was also a participant in the first high school basketball game played in Illinois (in 1893) just one season after James Naismith invented the game in faraway Massachusetts. It was Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had worked with Naismith at the YMCA Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, who brought basketball to Chicago.
After William Rainey Harper's death in 1906, the University of Chicago discontinued its relationship with the Academy, and the school once again became a boys' military boarding school.
Part of Harper's legacy, which continues to this day, is a tradition of high standards, exemplary teaching, and a remarkable loyalty to the school on the part of faculty, administration, staff, alumni, and students. Just consider the tenures of the faculty members Harry D. Abells (1898-1945), Haydn Jones (1899-1946), Francis Gray (1917-1960) and David A. Jones (1957-1998), among others. Note, too, the many alumni who have sent their own children to the Academy.
The Academy survived the Great Depression thanks, in part to two bold moves by Superintendent Harry D. Abells. While other schools were going under Abells expanded the Academy to increase revenue by starting a junior college (1933) and offering summer school courses—even to girls—from public and parochial schools.
Perhaps the most difficult decade in the school's history was 1958-1967, after the reluctant decision to demilitarize. Girls were admitted again in 1959, boarding was gradually phased out, and the school became integrated.
Morgan Park Academy survived those cataclysmic changes, endured, and flourished.
And, although it has had different names and evolving academic configurations, Morgan Park Academy has represented a tradition of educational excellence for more than a century and a quarter.